The Virgin

David Plante

Elizabeth was in bed. The dog had its front paws between her breasts, and, its tongue out, it stared at her as she spoke to it.

Charles, the husband, undressed and hung his clothes askew on the silent butler. When he took off his underpants, he held them in his hands a moment, expecting his wife to look towards him naked. She didn’t. About to throw his underpants on the floor, where his socks were, he noted, on the inside of the crotch, a yellow stain.

He thought: Oh, Christ.

He reached down for his socks and bunched them up with his underpants, then walked across the bedroom to the bathroom. He seemed to walk a long distance, and was just about to step into the bathroom when Elizabeth asked: ‘Where are you going?’

‘Where does it look like I’m going?’

‘I thought you’d already done everything you had to do.’

He raised his bunched-up underpants and socks. ‘I thought I’d throw these into the hamper.’

‘You always throw them on the floor.’

‘I’ve decided to be more neat. Every night before going to bed, from now on, I’ll throw my dirty things into the hamper. Why’re you frowning?’ he asked. ‘I’m doing it for you, so you won’t have to do it in the morning. I thought you’d be pleased.’

‘I’m wondering why you should all at once be doing something to please me.’

‘Because it just occurred to me, all at once.’

She made a face at the dog, stuck out her tongue like it and panted.

What he wanted to do was to shut the bathroom door and carefully examine the stain, but if he stayed in there longer than it took to throw the things into the hamper she would ask him what was taking him so long. Quickly, in the dim light above the wash-basin, he turned his underpants inside out, so his socks dropped to the floor, and saw, in the soft indentation made by his sensitive genitals, the stain. In the middle of the yellow was a pubic hair.

Maybe it was nothing but a pee stain. Maybe something he’d eaten or drunk had caused the pee, when dry, to go stiff.

Elizabeth said, ‘Charles.’

He placed the pants on the top of the hamper and went to the door, half hiding his naked body behind it. He said, ‘I think I’m suffering something I ate.’

‘What?’

Charlie barked.

He shut the door and lit the strong overhead light to again examine the stain. After he dropped the underpants, he thrust out his hips to examine the tip of his penis. He pulled the foreskin back, then, with his thumbs, opened the orifice, opened it and shut it, again and again, like a little talking mouth between whose lips saliva expanded and contracted. The mouth said to him: maybe it’s not your fault, maybe Elizabeth made love with someone while you were away and got a disease and gave it to you.

I’d forgive her, he thought. I really would forgive her.

Supposing the stain were the discharge of an infectious disease, if he put his underpants in the hamper, they could infect all the other clothes, including Elizabeth’s. But leaving his underpants on the floor would make her wonder, in the morning, why he’d made such a statement about putting them in the hamper. If she opened the medicine cabinet and his pants fell out, how would he be able to explain that? He sat on the toilet, and, after yanking the paper so she would hear the roller clank, wiped the tip of his cock, squeezing it. He studied the paper, but he couldn’t make out anything, and he threw the paper into the toilet, then slammed the toilet seat down and flushed. Wincing, he lifted the thick ceramic cover off the cistern behind the bowl and shoved his underpants inside. The cover jarred a little when he replaced it. He washed his hands carefully, and went into the bedroom.

The dog asleep at her feet, Elizabeth, still propped up by her pillow, stared at her husband.

‘Are you all right?’ she asked.

‘Fine,’ he said.

As he approached the bed, she smiled. He imagined she was smiling as she looked at his cock and balls swing from one side to the other with each step he took. Maybe she thought they looked funny. He glanced down, and thought: they are funny.

By the side of the bed, he turned partly away from her and stretched. His pretended yawn became a real yawn, and a small relief passed through him. He didn’t have to fake the yawn. He stretched more.

She said, ‘You’re delaying getting into bed.’

He lowered his arms. ‘No, I’m not.’

‘Don’t worry.’

Sitting on the edge of the bed, he said, ‘Worry about what?’

‘You know very well what I mean.’

The great pleasure of his going away was, for both of them, his returning. For days after, they were often inspired to make love as soon as he got home from work. This excitement had lasted three weeks.

He faked a yawn. He shook his head like a dog shaking water from his hair. ‘I guess I am tired.’ After shaking his head again, he let it hang heavily.

If he wore pyjamas, they would act as a kind of prophylactic to protect her. He didn’t want to get into bed with her, as much from his worry of contaminating her, if he hadn’t already, as from the worry of her contaminating him, which he still suspected she might have done.

He wondered whom she might have made love with while he was away.

In Rome, he hadn’t made love with a whore, but an American woman, married and with children, who took their love-making to be as momentary as it was to him. No, that wasn’t honest. He’d remembered her while he was making love with Elizabeth the first time after he got back, remembered her as a woman he’d been in bed with hardly twenty-four hours before. He’d remembered her face as Elizabeth and he made love, and maybe it was the memory of her that kept him making love with Elizabeth day after day.

His diseased cock jolted a little. He pressed it between his legs.

He should have told Elizabeth when he got back, when telling her would have been in a way innocent: that is, it would have been an honest admission, whereas now it would be an admission forced on him, revealing his dishonesty.

He wasn’t at all tired.

She said, ‘Get into bed and we’ll sleep.’

‘Right.’

‘Well?’ she asked.

He didn’t move, except to press his legs together more, which he hoped she didn’t notice. She noticed a lot.

Maybe the disease made him want to make love with her.

He couldn’t do it.

‘I’m thinking,’ he said.

Her voice changed, went up in pitch. ‘About what?’

Swinging his body more towards her, he said. ‘About you.’

Her voice went higher. ‘Me?’

He opened his legs and his released erection jumped up. ‘Look,’ he said.

She laughed. ‘Thinking about me made that happen?’

Shaking his legs so his erection wobbled, he laughed too. ‘About you and others,’ he said. Whenever they started this kind of talk, he thought, both their voices rose in pitch like children’s voices. At moments of greatest sexual self-consciousness they would find themselves using baby talk: ‘You want to play?’ she said.

He said, ‘Sometimes, I still think of you having sex with that man the day before we got married.’

‘Do you?’

‘I wonder why I still do, and why it gets me –’ Running a finger down his cock, he contemplated it.

‘That was a long time ago,’ she said.

He put his thumb and forefinger about his cock and squeezed it, his little finger held out. ‘You haven’t made love with anyone since?’

Blankly, she said, ‘I’d have told you if I had.’

He could feel the erection in his hand go a little soft. But there was no way out of it now, he had to make love with her or she would think he’d really become kinky for only getting excited at the idea of her having once been unfaithful, if, technically, she’d been unfaithful, as it’d happened before their marriage. He didn’t want her to think he was kinky. He wasn’t kinky. Moving his hand up and down, he kept his erection. But he couldn’t make love with her, not when the very drop that swelled out from the orifice, clear, was swarming with invisible germs. If he had sex with her, it would be like impregnating her with a deformed being.

‘And you?’ she asked. ‘Have you been up to anything while you’ve been away?’

‘No,’ he answered.

He was not sure he believed her about not having made love with anyone else since that first and last time.

As if to expose herself, Elizabeth threw the sheet off her; it fell over the dog, who woke up and, yapping, jumped, so the sheet bounced. Elizabeth reached down, uncovered the dog, named Charlie after her husband, and brought it in her arms to her bosom. Pressing her nose against its, she said, ‘Give me a kiss, give me a kiss, and another, and another, and another.’

Most likely, he thought, he had already impregnated her with a monstrous being, and she didn’t know.

He wondered if he could make himself touch her diseased body, which repelled him enough that he didn’t want to sleep with it in the same bed.

And if he hadn’t already infected it, if it were pure, he couldn’t touch it, not as he was.

Her nose was wet from the saliva of the dog, who, as she held it away from her face, tried to continue to lick her.

She said to Charles, ‘So what’s up?’ She was English. He was American.

Supporting his slack member with one finger, he said, ‘Not much any more.’

‘You stopped thinking about me?’

He thought, suddenly: I can use Charlie.

‘It’s not that I stopped thinking about you. You stopped thinking about me.’

‘You’re jealous of Charlie?’

‘Of course I am.’

‘Poor Charlie.’

‘What’s so poor about him?’

‘He’s got to love me, he doesn’t have a choice. Don’t you pity him for that?’

‘I hate the slavishness of dogs.’

She held the little terrier close.

‘I never had a dog when I was growing up in Boston,’ he said. ‘My parents thought the city was no place for a dog.’

They talked a little about the effect on him of having been brought up without a dog. While they talked, he got into bed and pulled the sheet over them. Charlie fell asleep, and Elizabeth deposited him at her feet. Charles pretended to fall asleep suddenly. Elizabeth shut off the light.

He couldn’t sleep, kept awake by the worry that he had infected his wife.

When he felt her hand on his shoulder, he, sighing deeply, turned away from her. She fitted herself against him, her breasts pressing against his back, an arm about his waist. He knew by her breath on his neck when she fell asleep. All night, he kept his body turned away from her body.

He heard Charlie, in low growls, and Elizabeth, in sibilants, talking to one another in the early morning. They did this every morning. He never understood what they were saying. Perhaps they were discussing what they were going to do together during the day, while he was at work. Always, they left the bed together, having agreed that the first thing they would do was go to the kitchen to eat something. Most often, she would return, alone, to the bed for another hour, until her husband had to get up. What Charlie did during this time Charles never knew, but no doubt Charlie, after discussing it with Elizabeth, agreed to go off on his own for a while, wagging his stiff tail, and leave his mistress and her husband to themselves. Sometimes in the morning they made love. This morning, Charles got out of bed before Elizabeth could return alone.

Bending low over the bed, his spectacles on, he studied the sheet on which he’d lain. There were a number of little spots, but they seemed to him too high, around the level of his chest. If he had had breasts and was nursing, he would have taken the spots as drops of milk exuded through his nipples. That would have been a fine explanation for the spots, which were, he thought, too high up for any other explanation, until he lay down on his side briefly, and found the spots occurred just where his glans touched the sheet. Hearing Elizabeth in the passage outside the room, he quickly rose, pulled the top sheet high, so it filled the air as he pulled it down to cover the bed. Elizabeth came in.

‘You’re up?’ she asked.

‘I thought I’d get an early start.’

‘Early start? You really are reforming your life.’

He smiled. ‘Do you want to use the bathroom first, before I go in and have a shower?’

‘You go,’ she said, and lifted the edge of the top sheet at her side of the bed.

‘You’re going back to bed?’ he asked.

‘Shouldn’t I?’

‘Somehow it seems a sinful thing to do, to go back to bed after you’ve got up.’

‘What is happening to you?’ she asked.

He took the attitude as if finally admitting to her what he’d for a long time been wanting to admit to her. He held out his hands, palms up. ‘I’ve had a conversion.’

‘And when did this happen?’

‘It happened, really, in Rome. Walking around one day, it just came to me that I hated that city. It happened, really, in a church. In, really, St Peter’s. All that marble, all that gilt, all the crystal, made me long, deeply long, for a simple white Episcopalian church in New England.’

‘I don’t for a moment believe you.’

‘But I mean it. I realised it’s been coming for a long while, this reconversion.’ He tried not to smile, but he couldn’t help himself and did, a little.

She smiled as well. ‘Why am I totally, but totally, incapable of believing anything that you say?’

He said, ‘Because you have no faith.’

She picked up her pillow and threw it at him. He grabbed it in his arms and hugged it against his chest, then he threw it back at her. She placed it at the headboard and studied the bed.

He said, ‘Now I’m going to have a cold shower.’

‘Cold?’

‘Just cold enough that I won’t enjoy it.’

‘And you’re going to have a shower wearing your spectacles?’

He took them off and laughed. ‘I put them on to think.’

‘What were you thinking?’

Without answering, he went into the bathroom. There was a yellowish mucus, which seemed to have a yellowish matter in it, around the orifice of his penis. He felt sick to his stomach.

When he came out, his face and body gleaming, he found Elizabeth had made the bed and was sitting at the foot of it. Only after he took from his side of the built-in wardrobe a pair of underpants and put them on did he feel he could go to Elizabeth, lean over and kiss her lips. She stared at him when he stepped back.

‘Don’t worry,’ he said. ‘I’m no doubt going through a little phase which has to do with suddenly imagining that, after ten years out of my country, I’m losing my sense of it, and I don’t want to. I catch myself saying “bonnet” instead of “hood”, “lift” instead of “elevator”. I use Anglicisms without wanting to. Well, it’s said that the last thing that goes from an immigrant’s past world is his religion, and maybe I’m trying to hold onto the past, rigidly simple, bright white church of my past, rigidly simple, bright white moral principles.’

‘You’re not an immigrant.’

‘After ten years in England, what am I?’

‘Stop it. Stop fooling with me, Charlie. I honestly don’t like to be fooled about with.’

He frowned. ‘I’m not fooling. You don’t understand what I’m going through. I’ve tried to keep it from you, tried to remain light-spirited for you. I’ve made love with you as much as you’ve wanted, haven’t I?’

‘You’re not going to tell me now that you didn’t want to?’

‘Of course I wanted to. I wanted to because you wanted to. And that is a very good reason for doing anything. To make love with another person because she wants to with you is, I think, the best, and maybe the most passionate, reason for making love with her, and it should never, ever, be denied her. But, to tell you the truth, I’d like to pause. Not from you. Not from your desires. Never from what you want of me. From sex. I have no idea why this has come on me, because even the explanation that it’s because I’m an American too long in Europe doesn’t completely convince even me, but it has come on me.’

She said, ‘Jolly good,’ and she got up from the bed.

Back at his wardrobe, with a mirror behind one of the doors in which he could watch himself dress, he put on a clean shirt, clean socks, and took his trousers from the silent butler and put these on. Dressed, he felt safely hidden away.

Elizabeth followed him into the kitchen. Sunlight slanted onto the red tiles through the glass doors to the garden. The dog was shitting in the middle of the small, square lawn, bordered by hollyhocks.

At the breakfast table in front of the glass doors, Charles asked Elizabeth, as if the day were a day of important choices to be made, ‘What’re you doing today?’

‘One thing I’m going to do is take a long walk with Charlie around Kensington Gardens.’

‘Aren’t you blessed having Charlie?’

She looked up at him from her egg.

‘Well,’ Charles said, ‘if you let yourself be picked up by some man in the park, you’ll tell me, won’t you?’

She took her shoulders. ‘Ugh’.

‘It happened once.’

‘And never again.’

‘You’ve said that often, but now that I’m off sex for a while I’ll bet if some man made eyes at you –’

‘Charlie, I told you I don’t like being fooled around with.’

He got up and went to her to press his forehead against hers. He smiled. ‘But you do.’

‘I don’t.’

‘You do. You like me to fool around a little, just a little.’

She gave his forehead a hard bump with hers and said, ‘It’s only when I know you do that I’m in any way sure of you.’

‘You’re not when I’m being serious?’

Standing away, his face long, he said, ‘But that’s a terrible judgment on me. I’m serious all the time.’

Her face was in the sunlight. Her shoulders and breasts showed through the white material of her sunlit nightgown. Her hands were holding a shining spoon. He loved Elizabeth.

‘Are you?’

‘I’ll show you how serious I can be,’ he said, and held out his hand.

She paused for a moment before she took it and rose from the table. He led her out into the garden, and stopped on the terrace where there was a chaise longue without its cushions. Letting go of her hand, he said, ‘Now wait here,’ which she did as he went to the tallest hollyhock in the garden, bright pink, and broke it off at its base, having to twist the stalk round and round, and yank so he almost pulled the plant up by the roots, and brought it back to her. ‘This is for you,’ he said. She took it, and as she did he pressed himself against her so the flower and its stalk were crushed between them. He held her tightly and kissed her, her forehead, her cheeks, her neck, her lips, saying over and over, ‘How beautiful.’

She unbuttoned his shirt to insert her face between his collar and his neck and kiss him. His love made him tug at her, so they, stumbling a little as they held onto one another, went into the middle of the lawn. It was unfortunate the chaise longue didn’t have the cushions, but to go for them would have made him feel silly, and he knew they couldn’t risk any greater sense of silliness then they were able, now, to sustain in taking off their clothes in a small garden in South Kensington. A newspaper reporter lived in the top flat and wouldn’t, Charles thought, mind if he looked out and saw a man and a woman making love in the sun-filled morning. No one, he thought, could possibly mind two people making love, their bodies abandoned to one another on the grass in the midst of their discarded clothing. Everyone would have to see that it was beautiful, as beautiful as it was to him, to her. They made love with the dog running in circles about them, yapping.

Her hair disordered and dry grass blades caught in it, Elizabeth lay back on the clothes. Charles saw her look over his body beside her.

Elizabeth stood and put on her nightgown, green at a hip.

He didn’t want to get up.

His wife must do something immediately to stop herself from being, if she already wasn’t, polluted. And even if she already was, it was wrong, according to he had no idea what principle, for diseased people to make love when the disease was contracted from making love. It did seem to be indulging, not in sex, but in disease. And he did not believe sex was a disease. He most certainly did not. Elizabeth would be very angry if she found out that he’d made love with her knowing he was polluted.

He said to her, ‘Shouldn’t you have a shower now?’

‘I will after you leave.’

If she had not been on the pill, he could have suggested to her a douche as a precaution –

For Christ’s sake, he thought, stop it.

Standing above him, she held her nightgown closed, yet loosely, about her naked body.

She would have to have got the disease. There was no real reason, after three weeks of making love with her, he shouldn’t have made love with her now. The only difference was that he knew he was diseased. It was, he had to admit, a big difference. Thinking about the difference, he felt sick again. He honestly shouldn’t have made love with her now.

‘Aren’t you going to get up?’ she asked.

‘In a minute. You go on. I’ll get up in a minute.’

Swaying a little, she walked away from him.

He rolled over onto his stomach and pressed his forehead into the grass.

He couldn’t help himself. He had wanted to make love with her.

In the bedroom, he put on another shirt, as the first had got rumpled. Elizabeth was under the shower. At the half-closed bathroom door he called to her that he’d see her later. She called, ‘What?’ Opening the door wider, he saw her through the clear plastic curtain, and he thought, no, it wasn’t wrong to have made love. He said, ‘See you later.’ Washing her breasts, she said, ‘Bye.’

At his desk in the office, he took from a bottom drawer the London telephone directory, S to Z, and just when his eyes stopped, with a sinking feeling as if having to face a choice which would mean the loss of everything he had, on the bold lettering VENEREAL DISEASES, a colleague came to the desk and Charles shut the directory.

Michael said, ‘Have you spoken to anyone here this morning yet?’

‘No.’

Michael was American, too. They worked in an American investment company.

‘No one’s told you about Harold Cripps?’

‘No.’

Michael bounced his head for a little while, his lower lip out, then he said, ‘Harold Cripps killed himself last night.’

His hands resting on the directory, Charles asked, ‘Why?’

‘It’s said because he knew he was going to come back to London and be told he’d got the sack.’

‘I didn’t know he was going to get the sack.’

‘I guess they were just kind enough not to let anyone know until they let him know. But he somehow found out.’

‘Harold Cripps killed himself?’

‘Threw himself out of his hotel window.’

‘Getting sacked isn’t enough of a reason to kill yourself.’

‘It was for him.’

‘I hardly knew him.’

‘The fact that he did do it shows how little control he had left, and how he couldn’t have kept up his work. That’s what they’re saying, anyway.’

‘What do you think?’ Charles asked. ‘Why do you think he was going to be given the sack?’

‘I didn’t know him well, either,’ Michael said. ‘But I knew him well enough to say he always seemed to be in control of his work.’

Michael left, and Charles turned back to the Vs in the directory. Maybe he should go to his own doctor, who was Elizabeth’s doctor as well, but he didn’t want to, and this wasn’t because he was shy, he told himself, but, yes, because he was shy. Under VENEREAL DISEASES, he found, in less bold type, ‘NHS Information Service – Recorded Announcement.’ As if distracted, he couldn’t recall the number and had to look back to the directory after each digit he dialled for the next digit, and he looked, too, around his empty office while he dialled. A man’s voice told him that the usual symptoms of venereal disease were pain in passing water or a sore on the sexual organs, which symptoms Charles, he immediately said to himself, didn’t have, so maybe he had some other form of disease, not venereal. The man told him to look in the directory for a clinic. There were many clinics listed and Charles went down them quickly, and just as Hilary, his secretary, came in, he decided on University Hospital, where, it seemed to him, the attitude towards him would be more than clinically impersonal, it would be scientifically impersonal – that is, he’d be treated by people whose interest was not merely to cure him of the disease, but, given the academic world they belonged to, to understand it. It would almost be as though he were submitting himself to them to be understood.

He wished Hilary would wash her hair more often.

‘Did you know Harold Cripps?’ he asked her.

‘No one did, much,’ she said.

‘You’ve heard about him?’

‘The receptionist told me.’

He imagined at least taking the same attitude towards Harold as would be taken towards him at the clinic, that of a detachment so vast it left individual, confused feelings as nothing. In that vast detachment, infidelities and lies didn’t matter, sufferings didn’t matter.

There was such silence among people in the office that morning, telephones rang, it seemed, without anyone answering them.

Of course, he didn’t want to go to the clinic. He took a taxi from the Aldwych to Bloomsbury, and on the way thought that maybe he didn’t need to go, that if he stopped at a men’s toilet and looked he’d find the pink tip of his cock clean.

He was going to submit his body to an authority that would remove his sex from him, that would reduce his sex to its effect, the infection, and the complicated cause of the effect – beginning with his sitting at a table in a trattoria in Rome next to the table of two women, one of whom flicked away her hair from the side of her face each time she sipped wine – would be discounted, and he would feel that his life was discounted.

His reassurances by the vast detachments were, really, reassurances he only hoped for, as he hoped for detachment in himself. Given that his body at its most private didn’t matter to the scientists – couldn’t matter to them, who had to see it impersonally – he wished, as the only way of accommodating their necessary view of him as a man with a body like other men, that it didn’t matter to him. It mattered a lot to him. He didn’t want to be like other men. He wanted to be like no other man. He knew that he was like all of them. But because he was, was like the thousands who’d come for treatment, he wouldn’t be singled out to be condemned and shamed for his diseased cock.

He went through the glass doors of the hospital, searching for a sign. A sister with a white cap and in a tight white and pink striped dress was going down a corridor, and he felt, by instinct, that he should follow her.

If it weren’t that the very member which was diseased, in being the most individual part of a man was also the most shameful, he would have come with no more concern for his individual self than he had shame in possessing a head, as all men did.

In a voice too loud, he asked a grey-haired woman shrunken behind a counter, ‘Could you tell me where the Venereal Disease Clinic is, please?’

‘Oh,’ she said softly, looking away from him, ‘we call that the Special Clinic.’ She glanced at him. ‘It sounds better.’

He smiled.

The clinic was down a flight of outside cement steps, at the end of a narrow area, past dustbins, and through a doorway marked MEN, next to a doorway marked WOMEN.

He never liked the separating off of the sexes, even in public toilets. A woman was sitting on a folding chair in the passage-way, just by another passage-way to the left. Her hands were folded in her lap, and as Charles went past her, to turn into a passage to the right, she looked up and their eyes met. Perhaps she wanted as much to be among men, and had come as far as she could to wait in their section, as he wanted to be among women. Both of them diseased in their sexes, they wanted, not to be among people of their own sex, who would isolate them, but people of the opposite sex, who understood that the diseases of sex weren’t contracted alone. The woman’s face was round and she wore round eyeglasses. She looked up at Charles, who felt lift from him the loneliness he only now realised had descended on him the moment he’d entered the door marked MEN.

The receptionist was a woman. Charles waited while she talked to a sister, then she turned to him. She smiled when she gave him a number on a card and told him never to lose it.

He had to wait in a white room with black chairs around the walls and a square, black table in the middle. Two men were waiting. One was young, and appeared to have come to the clinic from a construction site, the other was elderly, bald, wearing a jacket and tie. Charles reached out for any one of the magazines on the low table, a woman’s magazine filled with photographs of kitchens and gardens. After he flipped through it, he put it down and took another, and this was filled with pictures of fashion models. All the magazines were women’s. He put them down. No one else touched them.

Another two men came in just as the construction worker was called, by name, from the end of a long corridor, down which Charles saw him go to a black doctor in a white smock. Among the men, Charles felt that loneliness come upon him again.

And supposing the illness he had were more severe than he assumed, was, because he didn’t have the usual symptoms, some new strain not treatable by known drugs? And had he given that to Elizabeth?

From where he sat, if he leaned a little to the side he could see patients going into and coming out of the toilet, carrying what looked like plastic pill-containers, no doubt for specimens, but what kind of specimens Charles couldn’t make out, and he wondered if he’d be asked for sperm, if, in the men’s room, men in little cubicles were whacking off into plastic phials. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to supply it, just like that. What would he make himself think about to do it?

When a woman doctor called, ‘Charles Williams,’ he for a moment expected one of the other men to rise. She stood at the end of the corridor examining papers and looked up as he advanced. ‘How do you do,’ he said, and she said, ‘Well, thank you,’ and he followed her, past other patients going into and coming out of little examination rooms off the angled passage. In her room, she asked him to close the door and take a seat by her desk.

Dr Harrison’s hair was grey, short, and her aging, white face appeared very clean. She asked him questions and wrote the answers on what looked like a questionnaire. A small lump rose into his throat when he told her that never before had he had a venereal disease.

No matter how bad he’d been, she’d have forgiven him. As a woman, as a woman who had seen a lot, she would understand that when you made love it was not to hurt anyone, but because the desire to was so much greater than your resistance to it, and that it should be greater, should be so great that you would make love no matter what. She’d understand that to make love was, in the act of love, on the side of life, and to deny yourself making love with someone, to deny that someone making love with you, was denying life. She’d understand – she already understood – that the consequences, those of disease, and those, too, of hurting the people you were supposed to be faithful to, were, finally, incidental to that body in a hotel room in a hot city. A woman, she forgave him for his limited drive for personal satisfaction, and a scientist, she forgave him, if there was even a question of having to be forgiven, for all the expansive drives of his impersonal manhood.

The fact was, he remembered that while making love, he’d thought: I don’t want to be here, and if this weren’t my room I’d get out of bed and go.

Dr Harrison talked to him about investments as she pulled out a long paper sheet from a roll to cover the examination couch, then she asked him, by the way, if he wouldn’t mind lying on it and taking down his trousers and underpants. She continued to talk about investments in her quiet voice while he did what she asked of him, and as she drew on a pair of clear plastic gloves he tried to answer her simple questions about whether or not there was any point in investing as little as, say, a thousand pounds. Her white hands shone through the gloves.

A small stirring occurred in his penis when, looking down to see what she would do, she lifted it up.

She kept talking about investments.

He wondered if many men, examined in this way, got erections. If they did, he was sure it would be like an infantile erection, one aroused by gratitude. Charles felt come over him an enormous gratitude towards Dr Harrison.

As he replied to her query about what might a thousand pounds be invested in at least as a hedge against inflation, he saw her take a long fine wire with a cotton tip in one hand and, his penis in her other hand, bring the cotton tip to the tip of his penis, surrounded by and as though floating on a black cloud of pubic hair. She waited for him to finish what he had to say, which he wasn’t sure she had listened to.

‘This will be unpleasant.’

He closed his eyes and felt the brief, aching shock of the penetration.

‘Done,’ she said, ‘and I am sorry for the unpleasantness.’

He had, in a way, been fucked for the first time.

Dr Harrison inserted the cotton daub into a small brown bottle and with what looked like garden secateurs snipped off the length of wire at the bottle’s neck. She capped the bottle and wrote on the label.

Charles lay still, his trousers and underpants rumpled about his knees, his shirt-tails pulled up, waiting to be told what to do. At peace, he wanted to stay where he was and sleep.

As he was leaving her room, Dr Harrison said to him, ‘I am sorry, but no sex,’ and he, who could never be anything but an exemplary patient for her, said, ‘How could anyone want to have sex knowing he’s diseased?’ and she smiled sadly.

A beautiful, spirited sister took over from Dr Harrison. She gave him two plastic phials to pee into, but, in the toilet, he was only able to fill one, and that not full, but the sister took the one from him as though she were grateful for anything he could give her, even if it was a drop of his pee. Then she took him into a room where she asked him, in a rather excited voice, if he’d lie down for her to take blood, and he said, ‘All of it,’ and this made her laugh.

He was asked to wait on a chair in the corridor for a while before she came back with a bottle of pills which she shook as she explained that he must take four a day, preferably on an empty stomach, and that he mustn’t have any dairy products, though a little milk in his tea and a little butter spread thinly on his toast wouldn’t hurt him.

Was she flirting with him?

She said, ‘Now the social worker would like to speak to you.’

The social worker appeared at that moment, a smiling woman, who said she was Mrs Trimble. As he followed her into her office, she told him she’d just got back from her holiday in Torquay, where, unfortunately, it rained most of the time, but never mind. At her desk, she asked, ‘Do you have any idea who your contact was?’

‘Yes, I know,’ he said.

Studying the form, she said, ‘I see you’re married.’

‘Yes.’

‘Does your wife know?’

He shook his head.

‘Will it be difficult to tell her?’

‘It will be.’

‘You will, though, won’t you?’

He asked, ‘There isn’t any possible way that the disease could’ve been transmitted other than sexually, is there?’

‘No,’ she said.

‘I’ll tell her. I promise you, I’ll tell her.’

She asked, ‘Was your contact casual?’

‘I met her on a business trip in Rome.’

‘So you have no idea how to get in touch with her?’

‘She gave me an address. She lives in California.’

‘You see,’ Mrs Trimble said, ‘she may be a carrier and not know.’

‘She’s married.’

Mrs Trimble raised her hands. ‘Then she should inform her husband.’

‘Maybe she got it from him.’

‘Maybe.’

‘I’ll bet there’s someone he, too, should inform.’

‘It would be interesting to know in what country,’ Mrs Trimble said.

Before he left, he had to make an appointment with the receptionist for another visit. The receptionist wrote the date and time on his card, which, again, she asked him not to lose.

‘I promise I won’t,’ he said.

He came out from the basement clinic into the street with a sense of well-being, and as soon as he recognised this sense Harold Cripps rose into his mind. Charles hailed a taxi. Surely, he thought, as he looked out the taxi window at people walking along the pavement, there had to have been a way for Harold out of his problems. Then Charles realised he had never in his life known a state so low he’d imagined the only way out was to go lower. Perhaps his lack of that knowledge was a lack in his character, and he wished, for no other reason but to be able to understand Harold, for a little of the knowledge. Charles did not understand himself, but he believed there were people in the world who did, or who would if he went to them for understanding. What he wished was that he’d been enough of a friend of Harold’s to talk to him, to convince him that he should live, no matter what. Not having had the chance to do that, all he could wish was that he might understand Harold’s despair.

Instead of lunch, he took a pill.

Half-way through the afternoon, during which the office rose from the morning silence into loud activity, this idea occurred to him: before he told Elizabeth about himself, he would tell her about Harold Cripps, and Harold’s negation of life would reveal and excuse Charles –

The telephone rang, and while he spoke to someone in New York, he spoke, too, to himself: he would not use Harold’s death in a conniving way, and he was a dog for even thinking of it.

At the end of the work day, after Hilary had gone, Charles took from his jacket pocket his card from the clinic to put it in a drawer of his desk, then he thought, as he imagined sometimes happened, his drawers might be searched and the card found, and he put it back into his breast pocket.

Going down in what he now called the lift with his colleague Michael, Charles asked him, ‘Have you heard anything more about the real reason for H.C.’s suicide?’

‘Only enough to decide it’s better not to know.’

In the tube, pressed among people, he tried to think of a story to tell Elizabeth that wouldn’t be a lie but that would also not exaggerate the truth. The real truth might have been that if he hadn’t met Martha on his last night, he’d have seen her again and again, mainly, he thought, because she was also American. He wouldn’t tell Elizabeth that she was American.

Then, it’d be a good idea not to mention that the love-making had taken place in his hotel room, which suggested greater intimacy than he wanted to suggest. If she asked, he would say it had taken place in a train compartment and didn’t last any longer than the passage of the train through a tunnel. He would say that he suspected the woman, an Italian, was a whore returning to Rome from a visit to her family in Florence, a rather high-class whore who travelled first class and shaved her legs, but not very beautiful. He might even say he didn’t have time to come before the train rushed out of the tunnel. And if Elizabeth asked, as she might, specific questions about their positions as they fucked – ‘fucked’ didn’t sound any more honest, which he wanted to be, than ‘made love’ – he should think them out clearly now, should have her lift her hips from the seat to draw up her skirt and pull down her panties, then –

His flat was in Ovington Square, SW3. He walked all around the square. In the shrub-enclosed garden unseen children were playing. He climbed the steps to the white-fronted house with a porch and pilasters.

In the entrance hall, he called, ‘Hi,’ but no one answered.

The pills were in his pocket and made a faint chink-chink as he looked about the living-room then went into the bedroom, where he quickly put a pill into his mouth and shoved the container and his card into a drawer on his side of the wardrobe. He took off his jacket, hung it on the silent butler, and his tie.

Downstairs, at the kitchen table, was Elizabeth’s sister Louise, aged thirteen. She looked up at him from a book. Her smooth face was in the sunlight. ‘Elizabeth’s out walking Charlie,’ she said.

‘Where?’

‘In the square.’

‘Strange, I just walked around the square and didn’t see her.’

Louise, who was beautiful, smiled in a way that made her soft lips swell a little.

Charlie ran into the kitchen, his claws clicking on the tiles. He searched the room and ran back out, then came in again with Elizabeth. She said to Charles, ‘I saw you walking slowly around the square.’

‘I do that from time to time,’ he said, ‘just to see what’s going on.’

‘I never knew.’

Kissing her, he said, ‘I suppose there’re a few things about me you don’t know.’

Out on the terrace with drinks, he settled on the cushioned chaise longue between Elizabeth and her sister, who was reading as before, her hair trailing over the pages when they were turned.

Elizabeth said to Charles, ‘I had to have the plumber in today.’

‘Oh?’

Charlie was on her lap, panting. ‘The toilet wouldn’t flush. He found some man’s underpants in the cistern, tangled around the float.’

‘Some man’s?’

‘Some man’s pants were in the cistern.’

‘That wasn’t reason enough to call in the plumber.’

‘How did I know the trouble was pants in the cistern?’

‘You could have looked.’

Her eyes were magnified by wonder.

He turned towards Louise.

For the first time in his life, maybe, he understood the beauty of virginity.

Turned back to Elizabeth, he said, ‘There’s something I must tell you later.’

‘I can’t imagine what,’ she said.

Louise was staring at a tree at the end of the garden.

Elizabeth asked her, ‘What are you looking at, darling?’

Shaking her head, Louise lowered her eyes back to her book.

During dinner, which they ate at the table by the open glass doors to the garden filled with green evening light, Elizabeth spoke mostly to her sister. This was not because she was avoiding talking to Charles. She always spoke more to Louise than to him when they were all together, partly because she saw her sister only once a week for dinner and her husband every day, and also because she loved her sister, Charles knew, in a way she not only didn’t love him, but a way she couldn’t. He, too, was attentive to Louise’s talk.

She was talking about a friend at school she thought was staying too much to himself. ‘I tried to get him to go to a film with me, but he wouldn’t.’

Her eyes were like her sister’s.

She said, ‘It did occur to me that perhaps he didn’t want to go with me.’

‘I’m sure he did,’ Elizabeth said, ‘but is simply too shy to.’

‘Maybe he didn’t want to see the film,’ Charles said.

She smiled at her brother-in-law.

Louise left to go back to her parents’ house in Hampstead, and there seemed to Charles to be a spacious silence around him and Elizabeth. He expected a telephone to ring in such silence.

Clearing the table, he turned to find Elizabeth, a plate in her hands, standing still. He took the plate from her and said, ‘You go upstairs.’

She went out with Charlie, his upright tail shaking, at her heels.

In the living-room she was sitting lengthways on the sofa, reading a women’s magazine held up in the remaining light of the late spring evening. She moved her hips so he could sit on the edge of the sofa. The dog, asleep on a cushion, woke, looked at them, then lowered its muzzle onto its paws and kept its eyes on them.

Charles said to Elizabeth, ‘When I was in Rome, just the day before I came back to London, I went to bed with some woman, and I contracted a disease from her.’

‘I see.’

‘You probably have it.’

She cleared her throat. ‘Would you have told me if you hadn’t got the disease?’

‘No, I don’t think so.’

‘You’d have kept it from me?’

‘I keep many things from you. I don’t tell you about the people I see during the day away from you, the thoughts I have, the feelings I have.’

‘You don’t tell me because you forget them. But you couldn’t have forgotten about making love.’

‘I don’t mean the forgettable things. I often don’t tell you about the very things that I most remember from the day away from you.’

‘What things?’

‘All the bad encounters, all the bad thoughts and feelings I’ve had.’

‘Now you’ll say you don’t tell me because you don’t want to worry me about them, or hurt me.’

‘Isn’t that enough of a reason?’

‘Perhaps it is,’ she said quietly.

He didn’t touch her. He said, ‘I know that for you to realise that I don’t tell you everything is to make you suspicious, and that the suspicion is corrupting. So, I guess, I should, at the end of each day, tell you that on Monday at lunch with a colleague we talked about how we’d really like to make love with women other than our wives, and that on Tuesday I thought you looked a bit gone in the buttocks, on Wednesday I felt I couldn’t really stand you any longer, on Thursday I decided I would look for some other woman just for a change, and on Friday it occurred to me that the person I wanted was Louise and I spent the day fantasising about having her. You’ve had these thoughts, too, about me. We should tell one another about them, but to tell one another about them might easily be because we want to hurt one another, not because we want to be honest with one another. Sometimes, we do want to hurt one another, and yet we don’t want to. Am I making any sense? I’m not sure.’

‘I think, a little.’

‘We both know about our daily infidelities, and each day we forgive one another for them. I hope I don’t sound sententious,’ he said.

She asked, ‘What about a great infidelity?’

‘I wouldn’t be able to keep it from you. You would know if I stopped loving you, as you know now that I do love you.’

She put her fingers to her mouth. She lowered her fingers to her chin and said, ‘I’ve got to go to the doctor, haven’t I?’

As much as he wanted to touch her, he didn’t. When she reached down to take Charlie into her arms, he understood that she wanted to be alone, and he got up from the sofa and went into the bedroom.

A quiet revelation came to him, and it came to him about his wife’s love for him. He understood that the only love he could expect from her was intentional love. She was capable of deeper love, that for animals and children and also for old people, and this was unintentional, as if to them, who could not help themselves, she had no choice but to give it. However, him, who himself had choices, she chose to love. Intentional love was the love impure people had towards one another. It was a lot.

Carrying Charlie, she came into the bedroom. She said, ‘I really would like to know how the underpants got into the cistern.’

He told her.

‘And the woman, who was she?’

‘A whore,’ he said.

‘And where did you do it with her?’

‘On a train while hurtling through a tunnel, on my way from Florence.’

‘How did you know she was a whore? Did she ask to be paid?’

‘Maybe she wasn’t a whore.’

‘You didn’t pay her anything after all she did for you?’

‘I bought her a bottle of orange soda.’

‘That doesn’t sound much,’ Elizabeth said.

‘It wasn’t much.’